My War on Terror Letter to an Unknown American Patriot
by Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch I wish I knew your name. I’ve been thinking about you, about all of us actually and our country, and meaning to write for a while to explain myself. Let me start this way: you should feel free to call me an American nationalist. It may sound ugly as hell, but it’s one way I do think of myself. True, we Americans usually reserve the more kindly word “patriot” for ourselves and use “nationalist” to diss other people who exhibit special feeling for their country. In the extreme, it’s “superpatriot” for us and “ultranationalist” for them. In any case, here’s how my particular form of nationalism manifests itself. I feel a responsibility for the acts of this country that I don’t feel for those of other states or groups. When, for instance, a wedding party blows up thanks to a Taliban roadside bomb, or the Islamic State cuts some poor captive’s head off, or Bashar al-Assad’s air force drops barrel bombs on civilians, or the Russians jail a political activist, or some other group or state commits some similar set of crimes, I’m not surprised. Human barbarity, as well as the arbitrary cruelty of state power, are unending facts of history. They should be opposed, but am I shocked? No. Still — and I accept the irrationality of this — when my country wipes out wedding parties in other lands or organizes torture regimes and offshore prison systems where anything goes, or tries to jail yet another whistleblower, when it acts cruelly, arbitrarily, or barbarically, I feel shock and wonder why more Americans don’t have the same reaction. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t blame myself for the commission of such acts, but as an American, I do feel a special responsibility to do something about them, or at least to speak out against them — as it should be the responsibility of others in their localities to deal with their particular sets of barbarians.
So think of my last 12 years running TomDispatch.com as my own modest war on terror — American terror. We don’t, of course, like to think of ourselves as barbaric, and terror is, almost by definition, a set of un-American acts that others are eager to commit against us. “They” want to take us out in our malls and backyards. We would never commit such acts, not knowingly, not with malice aforethought. It matters little here that, from wedding parties to funerals, women to children, we have, in fact, continued to take “them” out in their backyards quite regularly.
Most Americans would admit that this country makes mistakes. Despite our best efforts, we do sometimes produce what we like to call “collateral damage” as we go after the evildoers, but a terror regime? Not us. Never.
And this is part of the reason I’m writing you. I keep wondering how, in these years, it’s been possible to hold onto such fictions so successfully. I wonder why, at least some of the time, you aren’t jumping out of your skin over what we do, rather than what they’ve done or might prospectively do to us.
Let’s start with an uncomfortable fact of our world that few here care to mention: in one way or another, Washington has been complicit in the creation or strengthening of just about every extreme terror outfit across the Greater Middle East. If we weren’t their parents, in crucial cases we were at least their midwives or foster parents.
Start in the 1980s with the urge of President Ronald Reagan and his fundamentalist Catholic spymaster, CIA Director William Casey, to make allies of fundamentalist Islamic movements at a time when their extreme (and extremist) piety seemed attractively anticommunist. In that decade, in Afghanistan in particular, Reagan and Casey put money, arms, and training where their hearts and mouths were and promoted the most extreme Islamists who were ready to give the Soviet Union a bloody nose, a Vietnam in reverse.
To accomplish this, Washington also allied itself with an extreme religious state, Saudi Arabia, as well as Pakistan’s less than savory intelligence service. The result was major support for men — President Reagan hailed them as “freedom fighters” and said of a visiting group of them in 1985, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers” — some of whom are now fighting us in Afghanistan, and indirectly for what came to be known as al-Qaeda, an organization which emerged from the American-Saudi hothouse of the Afghan War. The rest, as they say, is history.
Similarly, American fingerprints are all over the new Islamic State (IS) or “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. Its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, came into existence in the chaos and civil strife that followed the American invasion and occupation of that country, after Saddam Hussein’s military had been disbanded and hundreds of thousands of trained Sunni personnel tossed out onto the streets of Iraq’s cities. Much of the leadership of the Islamic State met, grew close, and trained potential recruits at Camp Bucca, an American military prison in Iraq. Without the acts of the Bush administration, IS would, in fact, have been inconceivable. In the same fashion, the U.S. (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, including a seven-month bombing campaign, helped create the conditions for the growth of extreme militias in parts of that country, as the U.S. drone assassination campaign in Yemen has visibly strengthened al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In other words, each of the terror organizations we categorize as the unimaginably barbaric Other has a curiously intimate, if generally unexplored, relationship with us. In addition, in these years, it’s been clear (at least to those living in the Greater Middle East) that such groups had no monopoly on barbarity. Washington’s extreme acts were legion in the region, ranging from its CIA torture chambers (although we called them “black sites”) to Abu Ghraib, from global kidnappings to images of a U.S. helicopter gunning down civilians in the streets of Baghdad. There were also a range of well-publicized vengeful acts of war, including videos of U.S. troops laughing while urinating on enemy corpses, trophy photos of body parts taken by American soldiers as souvenirs, photos of a 12-member “kill team” that hunted Afghans “for sport,” and a striking “lone wolf” nighttime terror rampage by an American staff sergeant in Afghanistan who killed 16 villagers, mainly women and children. And that’s just for starters.
Then there’s one matter that TomDispatch has been alone here in focusing on. By my count, American airpower has blown away parts or all of at least eight wedding parties in three countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen), killing at least several hundred revelers over the years, without the slightest shock or upset in the U.S.
That’s one reason I’m writing you: the lack of reaction here. Can you imagine what would happen if the planes and drones from another country had wiped out eight weddings here in perhaps a dozen years?
On a larger scale, Washington’s invasions, occupations, interventions, bombings, and raids since 9/11 have resulted in a rising tide of civilian deaths and exiles in a fragmenting region. All of this, including those drone assassination campaigns in the backlands of the planet, adds up to a panorama of barbarism and terror that we seldom acknowledge as such. Of course, the terror outfits we love to hate also love to hate us and have often leapt to embrace the extremity of our acts, including adopting both the orange jumpsuits of Guantánamo and the CIA’s waterboarding for their own symbolic purposes.